Imperfect 2012 candidates leave plenty of room for newcomers
Each time a 2012 Republican presidential contender makes a misstep, his or her supporters hasten to remind us that no candidate is perfect. True enough. Barack Obama had virtually no experience, was one of the most liberal members of the Senate and had opposed the strategy that was leading to victory in Iraq. Still, he beat Hillary Clinton, who had even bigger problems (e.g. running an "experience" campaign in a "change" election).
So what are the greatest weaknesses for the potential crop of 2012 contenders, and what are their likely responses?
Mitt Romney's problems are two-fold -- an underlying sense that he lacks deeply held convictions and his authorship of RomneyCare. As to the first, he would be well advised to stop his reflexive pandering to the most conservative elements in the party (opposing the tax agreement, for example) and to concentrate on his strength -- projecting executive competence and explaining conservative economic principles. As for RomneyCare, it is not clear that simply declaring that he wouldn't impose the plan nationwide is going to cut it. Conservatives object to the fundamental elements that underlie it (most especially an individual mandate), and Romney's critics will point to its failure to control costs.
Mitch Daniels's biggest problem isn't his height. His weakness is also his strength -- a laser-like focus on fiscal reform. As a GOP candidate, he will be expected to opine and appeal to the base on social issues and to explain his national security vision. Conservatives fed up with Obama's reticence in projecting American values and refusal to challenge despotic regimes will want to hear an alternative conservative perspective. To the extent Daniels suggests that defense spending is simply an item in the budget or sounds neo-isolationist, he will not endear himself to a party that has largely embraced a Reagan-esque foreign policy and a devotion to democracy and human rights abroad.
Tim Pawlenty was a successful governor, is solid on mainstream conservative positions and has no obvious personal shortcomings. And yet in gatherings of conservatives, he's not a name that engenders enthusiasm. Too bland or too quiet? It is not clear what is missing there. But he will need to carve an identity in the presidential field that will distinguish him from other governors in the race.
Sarah Palin's faults are well known and her critics are numerous. I am still not convinced that she will risk her fame, fortune and iconic stature in the conservative movement by becoming just another candidate, and one unlikely to convince an electorate beyond core conservatives to vote for her. But if she does run, she surely would be helped by dumping the "lamestream media" act. She's not a victim of elites; she's played them like a fiddle. The public doesn't need to be convinced that Washington is lacking in common sense. They want to hear what her answers are to our domestic and international challenges and to be reassured she can implement her conservative values. She left the Alaska governorship, in large part, because she was hounded by ethics complaints and critics. Unless she shows a tougher skin and a more ebullient outlook, she's be in for a rough time.
There are, of course, a slew of other candidates who may jump into the race. Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, Haley Barbour and John Bolton will need to decide in the next few months whether to take the plunge. Huckabee's conservative bona fides will be questioned. Christie's experience will be challenged. Ryan and Pence will need to beat the rap that "congressmen can't win the presidency." Barbour will need to overcome his self-created problem on race. And Bolton will have to demonstrate prowess beyond foreign policy. But none of these candidates should be dissuaded by the notion that there isn't room in the race for them.
To the contrary, the "top tier" candidates have name recognition but have serious shortcomings. The race is wide open, and the notion that a "lesser known" candidate can't win is simply preposterous in a media and campaign environment in which Christie has become a YouTube rock star and Ryan has emerged as a darling of wonkish conservatives.
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